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Word roots and routes: water

© ThinkstockNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

Not surprisingly, in view of the vital importance of the colourless, odourless liquid it refers to, water is not only a frequent word in its own right (as a noun and a verb) but also appears in a large number of compounds. The meanings of many of these are transparent, but not all. A watershed, for example, is not, as you might think, a shed to store water in, and the water cycle is not a sort of bicycle that you can ride across the surface of a lake or river. Nor is a water table a table on which glasses of water are served. Another of these compounds, water closet, became abbreviated to WC, one of a whole range of names for a toilet.

Water is closely related to wet, otter (a proficient swimmer which feeds mainly on fish) and probably also to winter (the ‘wet season’) but it also has less obvious connections with other groups of words. The Greek cognate húdōr (‘water’) is the basis of numerous English words with the prefix hydr-, including hydrate, hydrant, hydrangea, hydraulic, hydrogen (the element that generates water when oxidised), hydrocarbon, hydroelectric, hydrofoil and a whole host of more specialized scientific words.

The Latin cognates unda (‘wave’) and undāre (‘to flow’) are the origin of words which include undulate, abound and abundant (literally ‘flowing away’), inundate (literally ‘to flow in’), redundant (from Latin re(d)undāre, ‘to surge’) and surround (from Latin superundāre, ‘to overflow’). The meanings of the last four of these are all based on the image of a flow or flood of excess water.

Vodka, a loanword from Russian, is the affectionate diminutive of voda (water). Whisky (or whiskey, in the Irish and American spelling) is derived from Gaelic uisge beathe (‘water of life’; uisge is cognate with water, and beathe with vital). And other languages have also used the notion of ‘water of life’ for naming for various spirits, including the French eau-de-vie and the Swedish akvavit (from Latin aqua vitae).

The Old English word íȝland is a compound of íeȝ and land; the first of these two elements means ‘water’ and is in fact cognate with Latin aqua. In medieval times the spelling was iland or yland. But then the word became associated with isle, which is of French origin, and so a letter s was added to the spelling; the s in island has actually never been pronounced.

The word island was used to refer not only to an area of land completely surrounded by water, but also to a peninsula, a place cut off by high tides or floods, surrounded by marshes, etc. The first element of the Old English compound survives in place names such as Swansea and Wallasey.

Next in this series: Easter

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Jonathan Marks

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